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How Donald Tusk came to dominate Polish politics

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk has overcome his lazy reputation in his two years in office.

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk holds a news conference at the end of the European Union heads of state and government summit in Brussels, Oct. 30, 2009. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — Donald Tusk, a balding and physically unimposing man, doesn’t at first glance look like a political colossus. But Poland’s prime minister has become by far his country’s dominant political figure, which he re-emphasized last week in celebrations marking two years of his government.

“We have become a great, proud country,” a triumphant Tusk, 52, said at the start of a two-day conference to observe the anniversary.

His transition has surprised many Poles, who have watched Tusk during his two decades in politics. For years he was seen as a smooth political operator, but someone who avoided hard work and dodged any ministerial appointments in previous center-right governments. His greatest joy seemed to be playing soccer with his buddies.

But step-by-step over the last few years, Tusk has taken control of the center-right of Polish politics, carefully pushing aside rivals until he became the leading figure of the Civic Platform party he helped found in 2001.

He became prime minister in 2007. Following a lobbying scandal this fall he sidelined his party’s No. 2, Grzegorz Schetyna, the former minister of the interior. He told his former soccer partner that “big boys don’t cry” in politics and now stands alone. He now has complete control over the party and the government, and is the likeliest victor in next year’s presidential election — if he chooses to run.

A good part of Tusk's success stems from who he is not, namely his predecessor, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Kaczynski, the identical twin brother of the current president, Lech Kaczynski, had an enormously turbulent stint in power from 2006 to 2007 at the head of his right-wing Law and Justice party. The party’s operating principle was that Poland was dominated by a shady conspiracy made up of crooked businessmen, former communist spies and bent politicians who had to be exposed and destroyed. The party also had a close alliance with the most extreme elements of the Catholic Church and a strong suspicion of both Germany and Russia.

That toxic brew quickly became too much for many Poles, and they turned to the more affable and non-confrontational Tusk. Instead of televised harangues on threats to the nation, Tusk once went on the air to tell Poles to turn on their barbecues and have a grill to celebrate their country.